By Julie Halpert
(Reuters) - As the next step in an April deal between financially strapped Detroit and the state of Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder is finalizing a plan to tear down thousands of abandoned houses in a bid to make the city safer.
Detroit has been hard-hit over the past four decades by a steep drop in population, a steadily eroding tax base and crippling budget deficits, resulting in countless barren streets punctuated by vacant lots and burned-out buildings.
The state plan, likely to be announced early next month, is part of a financial stability agreement reached in April that headed off the appointment of an emergency city manager, which Detroit had opposed.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's administration already has demolished 4,500 "dangerous and abandoned buildings," according to press secretary Naomi Patton, and plans to tear down another 1,500 vacant structures by the end of September -- part of Bing's pledge three years ago to demolish 10,000 derelict buildings by the end of his term in late 2013.
In a statement, the mayor said, "We welcome the governor's efforts . . . Tangible assistance from the state is critical to our efforts to transform Detroit."
As Detroit struggles with a $197 million budget deficit, Snyder has looked at a variety of state actions to support the city. The financial stability agreement outlined a plan to improve the quality of life and safety for Detroiters, including demolition as a way to address blight.
"We're working with a variety of state departments and agencies to coordinate in an unprecedented way the work that gets done," said Sara Wurfel, Snyder's press secretary.
In addition to razing houses, she said, the governor is considering better public lighting and coordination between the state and city police departments on an ongoing "safe routes to schools" program.
"This is more than tearing down structures. We're trying to develop a community approach to making sure there are safe, stable neighborhoods" in Detroit, Wurfel said of the plan, which she called a "work in progress."
The governor is in the process of identifying pilot neighborhoods for the effort, Wurfel said, with the initial focus on the city's east, southwest and northwest sides.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is compiling a geo-mapping and coding effort to detail information on the structures to help guide decisions on which buildings will be demolished and provide a better estimate of the costs involved, Wurfel said. She said the governor is exploring multiple funding options.
Snyder appointee Roy Roberts, emergency manager of Detroit's public schools, said the governor's plan coincides with his work to make schools the "hub of the community."
Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said the actions will help give Detroit a more vibrant urban core.
"The effort really aligns with what the mayor is doing to accelerate the clearing of dilapidated buildings," Baruah said. But he added that tearing down buildings is not enough. The newly cleared land must be usable for community gardens or other public projects.
Among the state agencies involved are the Department of Treasury, the Michigan Land Bank, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, the Department of Human Services and the Michigan State Police. Also involved are the Detroit mayor's office, Detroit Public Schools and a variety of private sector, nonprofit and neighborhood organizations.
(Reporting by Julie Halpert in Ann Arbor, Mich.; editing by Matthew Lewis)